CLOTHES FOR A SUMMER HOTEL -- At the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater through February 23.
Tennessee Williams is not the first acclaimed contemporary author who has gone from creating celebrated, compellingly real characters to killing off the characters of real people by celebritizing them in fiction. Nor has he become the first to do it successfully.
"Clothes for a Summer Hotel," his new play about F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, with guest appearances by Hadley and Ernest Hemingway, Gerald and Sara Murphy and Mrs. Patrick Campbell, is a dreadful, pulp example of what has come to be known as "faction." Futhermore, it is writtern not in Williams' old, sensually evil style, but in cliches and psycho-babble.
If you don't know the basic stories of the lives involved, these three hours of Rona Barrett gossip, with unexplained references to Sheilah Graham, Edmund Wilson, Archibald MacLeish and other droppable names, will be incomprehensible. It would be impossible to image why "Zelda" talks mysteriously about fire throughout this play unless you know, as the character miraculously does, that Zelda Fitzgerald later died trapped in an asylum fire. (The play is set earlier, in the asylum, with flashbacks.)
If you are familiar with any of the many serious biographies available, this and the other clever predictions in the play will hardly seem to contain insightful, inevitable dramatic justice. "Lots of writers have cracked up in the past," says "Scott" to a dapper young Ernest Hemingway in one of the play's most embarrassing scenes, "and lots will in the future." He pauses meaningfully and points the finger of fate at Hemingway. By Heavens, you were right, Scott. Who wouldn't known that decades later, after triumphantly surviving an enormous variety of physical and literary dangers, a seriously ill Hemingway would end his own old age? And what does that have to do with Fitzgerald's battles with alcoholism, as chronicled so vividly by himself in "The Crack-Up"?
Hemingway is shown as dumb and pugnacious, his first wife as a silly vamp, the great Shavian actress Mrs. Campbell as an old fool, and the Murphys -- who, after all, gave us "Living well is the best revenge" -- as gushy folks who are madly flattered to have been depicted in "Tender Is the Night." Williams ignored a stupendous amount of factual material to create such cartoony characters.
The character of Zelda has one motivation, oversimplified but legitimately based on a real statement: resentment that her husband considered her life to be his property to use in fiction. But Fitzgerald's technique, which also, incidentally, annoyed the Murphys, was totally unrelated to the one Williams is using. Fitzgerald did not omit the step of turning life's raw material into art.
The only person doing any of that in his premiere production, which was directed by Jose Quintero, is Geraldine Page. She is an amazing actress, who has perfected the role of grotesque coquette in pervious Williams play, and if anyone could make swampland poetry out of such lines as "We danced at the edge of life," she could.